Looking to hit your corporate goals but missing the mark? Try fast-forwarding your efforts with reverse mentoring.
It’s a process where junior employees act as mentors and share their valuable knowledge, advice and guidance with senior executives to achieve corporate objectives and goals.
What Is Reverse Mentoring?
Reverse mentoring programs create a formal framework for junior employees and senior executives to develop a relationship for the cross-generational transfer of knowledge, compared to random ad-hoc conversations.
What Is Reverse Mentoring?
Reverse mentoring is the formal pairing of a junior employee, who serves as a mentor, with a senior executive, or mentee. The purpose of these reverse mentoring relationships is to achieve corporate goals through the exposure of more current information and data. In sharing such information, the junior employee also mentors the senior executive on potential new approaches and actions that can be taken. A junior employee, for example, may possess and can introduce a younger and more diverse perspective to a senior executive.
Reverse mentoring can also give senior leaders another tool to potentially sharpen their technical approaches and become better versed on emerging tech trends that they have learned from their mentor, who may be a recent college graduate where cutting-edge technology is discussed.
“The term ‘reverse mentoring’ is a very loaded word. It starts with the premise of reverse, but the relationship actually becomes reciprocal over the course of time.”
Beyond technology, other forms of cross-generational knowledge transfer can pop up with reverse mentoring. Junior employees can advise executives on how to develop effective diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Reverse mentoring programs can also address marketing concerns, such as using influencers on social media to help drive sales.
Reverse mentoring is different from reciprocal mentoring, in which the relationship from the start is structured with both parties learning from each other based on their lived experiences, Emily Cosgrove, co-founder of The Conversation Space, told Built In.
Experts note, however, in many cases, formal reverse mentoring pairings often later shift to reciprocal mentoring too.
“The term ‘reverse mentoring’ is a very loaded word. It starts with the premise of reverse, but the relationship actually becomes reciprocal over the course of time,” Sanghamitra Chaudhuri, associate professor of human resource management at Metropolitan State University, told Built In.
An estimated 70 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer traditional mentoring programs since it was first introduced in the 1980s, said Wendy Murphy, associate dean of undergraduate programs and professor of management at Babson College. But of this group, she estimates only a small percentage of companies are offering a reverse mentoring program.
Employer interest, however, is growing, she said, in part fueled by a desire to use it as a way for senior leaders to gain knowledge about recruiting and retaining millennials, Gen Z and women to their workforce.
“Reverse mentoring programs are sort of hitting their stride as something that organizations are willing to use and try,” said Murphy, who also wrote a paper on the subject,“Reverse Mentoring at Work: Fostering Cross-Generational Learning and Developing Millennial Leaders.”
Benefits of Reverse Mentoring
Reverse mentoring helps create deeper connections between senior leaders and younger professionals, which can lead to better business outcomes and support retention efforts, said Tal Goldhamer, chief learning officer of the Americas for global professional services firm EY.
Senior leaders can get a direct view into their mentor’s role and unique work experience, and a junior employee’s 1-on-1 sessions with their mentee also give them access to leaders that they may not otherwise have contact with as part of their day-to-day work, he added.
Reverse mentoring can also help disengaged junior employees come to life by putting them into the limelight and giving them increased visibility early in their career, said Sanghamitra.
Benefits of Reverse Mentoring
- Gain knowledge of new technologies and trends
- Discover new ways to improve diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts in the workplace
- Learn strategies for retaining millennials and Gen Z
- Prepare future company leaders
It also helps develop future company leaders by allowing emerging leaders to flex their leadership muscles and mentoring skills. It puts the onus on the emerging leader to take responsibility for the reverse mentoring relationship, which in turn benefits their growth and development, said Jemini Sharma, vice president of business resiliency for BNY Mellon’s clearance and collateral management unit and co-lead of BNY Mellon’s intergenerational employee resource group GENEDGE.
It can also provide young mentors with a greater sense of belonging and may lead to the retention of diverse talent across generations, she added.
For senior-level executives and managers who serve as mentees, they benefit from learning about new trends in social media, cloud-based computing, robotics, database management and other facets relevant to them, said Shireesha Seshanaath, vice president of client training services at BNY Mellon’s Pershing clearing house.
10 Steps to Create a Reverse Mentoring Program
Here are 10 steps to take when creating a reverse mentoring program.
- Determine a key goal tied to a strategic initiative that reverse mentoring will seek to address.
- Gain support from senior leaders to launch a reverse mentoring program. Approach senior leaders who have had a great traditional mentoring experience and talk to them about the value they gained from that experience. Then move into discussing reverse mentoring and seek their support in launching such a program with their respective leadership team.
- Adequately fund the reverse mentoring program. Reverse mentoring programs benefit a company’s growth, career development, and hiring and retention of diverse employees — categories that largely fall under the purview of human resources, which would likely be tapped to fund the program. HR departments can inquire with various reverse mentoring consultants and academics to assess the potential costs of establishing a reverse mentoring program and budget accordingly, if possible.
- Appoint an executive to oversee the program, its orientation training and resources. Typically, the HR person who is part of the strategic planning of the organization would oversee a reverse mentoring program.
- Seek out the most senior-level executives based on the key goal to serve as the mentees, then find mentors who can meet their learning needs. If the key goal is to bolster flagging revenues because the customer base is aging and your company needs to reach a younger clientele, for example, select your top-level marketing executives to serve as mentees and junior employees who have a passion for following the latest trends among youth and how they get their information to be the mentors.
- Develop mentor and mentee resources, such as guidelines on how to hold meetings, hold respectful conversations and keep the information confidential.
- Train mentors and mentees on setting expectations, goals and developing the logistics for their reverse mentoring relationship.
- Advise mentors to have several options to contact their mentees, such as cell and work phone numbers, email and instant messaging.
- Arrange reverse mentoring cohorts to run every six months or every year, with the participants meeting at least once a month.
- Recruit a critical mass of mentors and mentees because participants will rotate in and out of the program and it’s good to build a roster of junior and senior employees who are willing to participate. Due to various reasons, senior executives, in particular, may be available to serve during one six-month or one-year cohort, but may not be available to serve in the next cohort.
Reverse Mentoring Challenges to Watch Out For
“The biggest hurdle for most mentees is the role reversal,” Murphy said. “Sometimes you have people who oversee 3,000 to 5,000 employees and you’re asking them to put on the mentee hat and get back into the learning role.”
The best step to take when facing this challenge is to ask the senior employee to keep an open mind and encourage them to ask specific questions, she added. For example, if learning about social media, they could ask, “When should we use social media in our marketing? What tone should we take?”
Three other challenges loom large when forming a reverse mentoring relationship, said Seshanaath, who is also a GENEDGE co-lead.
- Members failing to prioritize the reverse mentoring relationship.
- Mentors failing to take the lead on the relationship due to anxiety or nervousness.
- Letting interaction between mentors and mentees dry up without credible topics.
Potential workarounds for these problems include ensuring priorities remain rock-solid from the start to the end of the cohort session and communication remains strong between mentors and mentees, Seshanaath said. That communication can include updating each other about schedules, cancellations and other roles and responsibilities.
What to Avoid When Creating Reverse Mentoring Relationships
Avoid immediately jumping into addressing the goal for the first few meetings.
“I always encourage mentors and mentees to spend a couple of the meetings to get to know each other, find out what they’re interested in, what their values are, so they get to know who this person is, rather than just knowing them to achieve a purpose,” Cosgrove said.
Reverse mentoring, as well as traditional mentoring, is a relationship and it’s important to understand it needs to be supported, she added. Once it’s supported, then conversations can happen and successful relationships can grow.
“We’re asking people to step into a really vulnerable space ... If it isn’t supported properly, then it can be disastrous.”
If the relationship is not supported well, then the risk is high that the reverse mentoring effort will fail.
“We’re asking people to step into a really vulnerable space,” Cosgrove explained. “Senior leaders are being asked to show up with a beginner’s mindset and junior people are asked to speak their truth to power within the organization. If it isn’t supported properly, then it can be disastrous.”
Real-World Reverse Mentoring Examples
The late Jack Welch, CEO of General Electric, implemented reverse mentoring at one of the nation’s oldest conglomerates in 1999, marking the first time reverse mentoring had been used on a wide scale at a corporation. Welch instructed hundreds of GE’s senior executives to team up with tech-savvy junior staffers to learn about the internet.
Here is a look at other real-world examples of reverse mentoring.
EY’s reverse mentoring program is offered twice a year. Junior and senior employees answer questions about their goals and interests and select their match from an automated system that takes into account geographies and service lines in pairing mentors and mentees.
Discussions about technology, innovation and career growth serve as a springboard for a number of other topics of interest for both mentor and mentee in the reverse mentoring program.
“We also urge our leaders to be vulnerable and share their own experiences,” Goldhamer added. “Both mentors and mentees are encouraged to curiously ask questions that inspire reflection and foster trust.”
The investment bank began its reverse mentoring program about a decade ago to better understand the newer generation in the workplace and technology, said Carolina Lima, vice president of managed account solutions for BNY Mellon’s Pershing and co-chair of GENEDGE, which administers the company’s reverse mentoring program.
The reverse mentoring program not only pairs people based on generational differences but also pairs them based on diversity of thought, experiences and one’s unique journey, Sharma said.
“The purpose and mission of the reverse mentoring program has remained the same, which is to ingrain employee diversity into company culture — pairing emerging generations with senior leaders to develop fresh perspectives on the work environment and key life trends.”
The pandemic prompted BNY Mellon to take advantage of remote working by also expanding its reverse mentoring program globally and incorporating cross-regional pairings.
“The purpose and mission of the reverse mentoring program has remained the same, which is to ingrain employee diversity into company culture — pairing emerging generations with senior leaders to develop fresh perspectives on the work environment and key life trends,” Sharma said, noting monthly mentor meetings are held.
The Hartford Financial Services Group, a property and casualty insurance company, uses reverse mentoring for cross-generation transfer of knowledge for social media, said Sunyoung Park, associate professor at Louisiana State University’s School of Leadership and Human Resource Development and co-author of a study titled, “Engagement, Inclusion, Knowledge Sharing and Talent Development: Is Reverse Mentoring a Panacea to All?”. And after the participants complete their formal cohort session, they conduct follow-ups to determine ways to care for the mentoring relationship informally.
National Health Service, a federal agency that connects communities with limited access to health care, uses reverse mentoring for its DEI efforts, pairing its white senior leaders with their mentors who come from ethnically diverse backgrounds to expand their understanding of their workforce and communities they serve, said Chaudhuri, the Metropolitan State University associate professor.
Professional services company RSM uses reverse mentoring for business transformation. Through its reverse mentoring program, an idea was born to create a national shadow board for the company. The participating senior executive presented the idea to the company’s board of directors, which signed off on the idea.
Now, every quarter the shadow board meets with the CEO, Cosgrove said. These shadow boards consist of non-executive employees who work with the company’s executive team to develop strategic business transformation ideas. RSM has had its reverse mentoring program for about six to seven years.